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How to buy quality on a budget

Looking to save money? Here’s how to get the most bang for your buck on food, clothing, tech and more

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Whether you’re cutting back on expenses by choice (saving for a house, maybe) or necessity (inflation, anyone?), perhaps the hardest part is the feeling that you’ll also have to cut back on the quality of your everyday life.

It’s one thing to take fewer vacations, but it’s another to have to downgrade what you eat or wear every day. In order to avoid that, according to Stephanie Genkin, Certified Financial Planner (TM) professional, a person needs to change their approach to consumption, so that they can still consume things of the quality to which they have become accustomed.

Below, here’s a guide to achieving that, and maybe even improving the quality of what you buy in the process.

In this article:

Buy less, but buy better

When it comes to scaling back your spending without sacrificing quality, Genkin, who is the founder of My Financial Planner in Brooklyn, says her core philosophy is to “buy less, buy better and buy less frequently.”

Doing that requires making some adjustments to your habits (see below) and your way of thinking. “Instead of feeling impoverished, I think this is a moment for thinking more environmentally: reducing waste and reducing our footprint, which means being more picky about what we’re buying,” she says. “For example, try to avoid fast fashion because it ends up in the trash,” which means you wasted money and natural resources.

“That’s what I mean about having an environmental mindset during this moment of high inflation and really being mindful of what you’re buying,” she adds. “Put your dollars towards the things you really need and want instead of mindless shipping like people used to for sport,” and it will be easier to keep buying good stuff.

Food and drink

This is one area where you can arguably improve the quality of what you buy while spending less. All you need to do is plan ahead a little and entertain at home more frequently.

Food

The restaurant markup on food is not as high as it is on beverages, but it’s still considerable. For example, you can buy a top quality steak or fresh pasta (neither of which is hard to cook) for much less than you’d spend on them at a restaurant. Ditto pretty much everything kids like to eat, from chicken tenders (which you can buy frozen) to hot dogs and hamburgers.

Make cooking into a leisure activity — have “dinner night” for family and/or friends, where you get nice ingredients and make something delicious. If your friends are also feeling the pinch of this economic moment, they’ll probably be delighted to come over, bring a bottle and hang out instead of having to foot the bill for bars and restaurants.

For everyday meals, “I almost always bring my lunch to work” says Genkin. “Then when I go out for a nice meal, I feel like this is where I can spend money, have a nice time. It also happens to be not too bad on the waistline.”

To accomplish this, try making batches of food (such as quesadillas, veggie wraps, even stews) that can be frozen and reheated as needed. It makes taking lunch to work easy, and it’s also useful during evenings when you’re short on time: You can have the convenience of takeout without the cost. If you’re already making lunch for your kids, add extra portions for yourself and your spouse.

When buying food, “shop like a French person,” says Genkin. “Go to the market or store, buy what you need for a couple of days, then go back. I know that’s harder for families, but an astronomical amount of produce is wasted every year. Buying less doesn’t mean buying lower quality food, it just means you’re not paying for stuff you’re never going to eat.”

While Genkin notes that “the Costco mentality — ‘if you buy more it’s cheaper’” can work for things like paper goods and detergent, “You should buy food, especially fresh, healthy food, with a different mindset.”

Drink

When it comes to alcohol, you can drink like royalty at home for a fraction of what you’d pay going out. In a restaurant, a glass of wine is typically priced at 85%-100% the cost of the bottle. A bottle of wine will be marked up 200% – 400% (the cheaper the wine, the bigger the markup). The markup on liquor is also large.

All of which is to say that you can afford to drink better at home than you can when you’re out, while actually spending less (especially if you buy wine 6 or 12 bottles at a time, which usually means a discount).

Even if you don’t consume alcohol, sodas, juices, and other liquid refreshments are invariably marked up over what you’d pay at the grocery store (or, in some cases, pay to make the drink yourself).

Clothing

Rent the Runway is a great way to not buy more than you need: you can pay a monthly fee and show up fabulous,” says Genkin, of the service that allows you to rent designer clothes and accessories — a timely service, now that we all might be dressing up more as the pandemic recedes.

It’s like borrowing it from a friend who just happens to have great taste and be your size. If you need something for an occasion such as a wedding, “try it as an experiment,” she says. The cost of Rent the Runway compares nicely with a fast fashion purchase that you might only wear a couple of times, and what you get will be better quality in every way.

To buy nice clothes for less, you can also try their local consignment stores. “They’re very picky about what they take because they need to make a profit, so you won’t find stains or damage,” says Genkin. For clothing in general, a lot of fun can be had by browsing vintage stores. “I live in New York and I’ve found designer clothes with tags on for $5 in second hand stores,” says Ghenkin.

She also cautions: “Know your sizes, as there often aren’t changing rooms.” If you prefer your clothes shopping online, TheRealReal is a good place for used designer duds, and ThredUp has plenty to offer on the more economical end of things — and both offer plenty for kids, as well as adults.

Furniture

The average person will move an average of nearly 12 times over the course of a lifetime, according to data from the US Census Bureau. That would mean every six years or so over the course of an average lifespan, but in reality, many of us move even more often in our younger age.

But because furniture is often built with integrity, and doesn’t necessarily work with every dwelling, it sometimes makes sense — practical as well as economic — to unload it as quickly as possible, rather than pay to move it.

Why do we mention all this? Because when you’re on the other side — when you need furniture — sites like Craigslist and NextDoor often have high-quality furniture for cheap or even free.

“I moved, needed a few bits, looked at Craigslist every single day, and I can’t believe how well I did,” says Genkin. “People need space, which means you can find quality, handmade furniture cheaply if you’re not in a hurry. As Americans, we want everything in a hurry, but if you furnish your place over time, live in it and see how the light moves within it, you’ll end up with things you want to keep.”

Tech products and beyond

We live in a golden age of product reviews. Once upon a time, the best you could do is subscribe to Consumer Reports and follow their word. That publication still exists, and still provides useful advice on when to splurge, when to save, and how to make the best decision for your budget on everything from leaf blowers to cable-free NFL access.

But you can also compare and contrast its reviews with those of The Wirecutter (owned by The New York Times, and especially adept with gadgets), The Strategist (owned by New York magazine, and especially useful for fashion, design and gifts), and more, not to mention online forums like Reddit.

Because the price of many goods is seasonal, it’s also worth looking at sites that can suggest the best (i.e., cheapest) time of year to buy certain products. Lifehacker is a great place to start.

Rethinking convenience

“We always say ‘I don’t have time for this,’” says Genkin. But when you’re trying to save money, “sometimes you have to stop and say ‘Really? That seems unlikely,’ and to think about how you can organize your time better.”

In other words, if you buy a coffee every day on the way into work because it brings you joy, then perhaps it’s worth it. But if you’re doing it because you think you don’t have time to make coffee at home and bring it in, maybe you should just buy a nice thermos and get up five minutes earlier.

Swap your coffee shop habit for a range of coffees from a place like Porto Rico Importing that sells java sourced internationally from India to Zimbabwe, and you can drink your way around the world and save money at the same time. Small changes like that can help you spend less, and get more in return.

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Haven Life is a customer-centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our editorial policy

Haven Life is a customer centric life insurance agency that’s backed and wholly owned by Massachusetts Mutual Life Insurance Company (MassMutual). We believe navigating decisions about life insurance, your personal finances and overall wellness can be refreshingly simple.

Our content is created for educational purposes only. Haven Life does not endorse the companies, products, services or strategies discussed here, but we hope they can make your life a little less hard if they are a fit for your situation.

Haven Life is not authorized to give tax, legal or investment advice. This material is not intended to provide, and should not be relied on for tax, legal, or investment advice. Individuals are encouraged to seed advice from their own tax or legal counsel.

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